GRANOLAPARK: Vote squeezing

2011 Takoma Park, MD city election.


Dear Readers,

The Takoma Park city council wants to get more residents into the voting booth. Voter turnout has always been embarrassingly low – 18% of registered voters in the last election. It is particularly in wards with a high percentage of renters in large apartment buildings.

What’s the way we deal with problems in Takoma Park, Dear Readers? Form a TASK FORCE!

Councilmember Tim Male has proposed a Right to Vote Resolution that calls for such a task force. It would also call on Congress to support a constitutional amendment granting American citizens the right to vote – something that is not spelled out in the U.S. constitution.

Ballot counting after the special Ward 5 election, July 2012.

Ballot counting after the special Ward 5 election, July 2012.

The city’s task force on voting would be charged with squeezing more votes out of residents: strengthening and extending early voting provisions, review laws that effect voting, make recommend policy changes to uphold voting rights and increase voter participation – such as allowing people as young as 16 to vote, and offer translations of ballots and other voting materials in several languages.

The other proposal before the council is from council member Seth Grimes. It would allow voter registration on election day. Currently registration cuts off a month before the day of voting – just as the campaigns are starting and most residents are not paying much attention.

Anecdotal evidence from the council  suggests extending voter registration would get at least a few more voters to the polls. They confirmed having similar experiences as those bemoaned by council member Kay Daniels-Cohen. She described trudging up stairs to knock on doors to deliver her campaign spiel, only to discover the residents were not registered voters, and it was too late for them to register.

So, the law extending registration right up to election day would solve that problem.

This will mean a city charter change. Despite the recent drama the council went through over a city charter change, the council seemed hung-ho to go through the exacting measures again. To change the city charter there must be a certain number of public hearings at certain time. Public notice must be given in local publications (a city expense), and a time schedule kept.

Getting renters involved in city elections was an issue on both council member’s minds, soo. Most of the city’s large rental buildings prohibit campaigning on the premises, as well as campaign signs, and literature. So, anecdotally, again, it seems access may be one reason renters don’t vote. Grimes, says he is thinking of some kind of housing code change that would address this problem, and Male’s Right to Vote Resolution says apartment building election posters are needed.

2011 Takoma Park, MD city election.

2011 Takoma Park, MD city election.

The question nobody is asking

How do we know this will get non-voters to the polls?

As far as we can see, nobody has bothered to ask non-voters why they don’t vote. Perhaps that should be Job #1 for the Task Force on Voting – a survey or poll (done by volunteers, please – not paid for by city revenues). It seems like the proposals follow liberal assumptions about why people don’t vote rather than on actual data.

Your Gilbert doesn’t know why people don’t vote, but we suspect its because they don’t care enough to. We suspect voters tend to be people who have lived here a while, know the issues and the people, are involved in their neighborhood associations, and who see reasons to vote for or against something or somebody. And what makes people care is when something effects them personally – when they feel like they need to take a side. Our elections rarely offer two sides to any issues. In the last general election the two candidates vying for the Ward 2 seat were as alike as two peas in a pod, and had to fall back on personality differences to find a disagreement between them.

Most residents, we suspect, are happy to live here, enjoy the services and ambiance, and have no reason to vote because the services and ambiance are not threatened. A non-vote is actually a vote of confidence.


Meanwhile, the people who actually administer the vote, the city Board of Elections, want some other reforms.

They want to simplify the vote, board chair Marilyn Abbott told the city council Jan. 22. The board recommends dropping the vote “verification” system used in the last few elections. This involved having a number printed in invisible ink on the ballot, revealed with a special pen issued to each voter. The voter would write down the number, then look it up online to make sure his or her ballot was counted.

Councilmember Kay Daniels-Cohen agreed wholeheartedly, calling the system “hugely confusing.” Only around 6% of voters used the system, anyway, both she and the Board representative noted.

There are other simplifications the board wants, and these would involve getting a new vendor to run the elections. The vendor would provide voting machines, software support, ballot design, tabulation of votes, access to and interactions with the county poll-book, and perhaps printing ballots-on-demand to eliminate the wastage of printing extra ballots.

Ballot counting after the special Ward 5 election, July 2012.

Ballot counting after the special Ward 5 election, July 2012.

Why not just go back to paper ballots, asked councilmember Fred Schultz. After all, he said, it’s not a lot of ballots to count.

Abbott replied that the city’s “instant runoff voting (IRV)” system complicates hand-counting of ballots. As far as voters are concerned, however, they are filing out a paper ballot, she said. The technology comes later as the ballot data is scanned into a computer.

She said she had no problems with council member Grimes’ proposal to offer voter registration on election day.

Distant roar

With a sound like the distant roaring of an approaching Mongol horde, the council began a discussion of budget priorities and financial matters. There will be more of this to come, Dear Readers, culminating in the sacking and pillaging otherwise known as Budget Reconciliation. You’ve been warned.

The discussion opened Jan. 22 with an unsettling list of high expenses and lower revenue presented by acting city manager Suzanne Ludlow.

The speed cameras are not producing their projected income. Seems the law says the city can’t impose impose late fees, as it has been doing in previous years. There is also the worrisome development that due to Baltimore’s mismanagement of its speed cameras, the state legislature will likely fix it’s greedy spider-eyes on them this session. Who knows what will come of that? It could well end with the city wrapped in webbing and sucked dry. And it could mean the end of an income source the city has come to depend on to fund some police positions, traffic safety, and sidewalk construction.

Of course, the city ONLY has speed cameras for TRAFFIC SAFETY, not for revenue. So, naturally, nobody would care if the fees went to the state instead of the city.


As for new expenses, Ludlow had list. New staff positions were mentioned. Councilmember Grimes would like a new resource staff position. The police would like an emergency planning position.

In a request that is sure to enflame residents still bitter over the run-away construction costs of the city’s community center, Ludlow asked for an architect position to deal with the community center’s design flaws. The building is “wearing out,” she said. It needs some new wall and screen treatments and other measures to reduce mantanance costs, and some reconfiguring to find more storage space.

Good news is that the Governor’s budget allots $200,000 of highway user fees to the city. That’s up from last year’s $90,000, but not as high as 2009’s $500,000.

Unknown is what new property value assessments will mean. Lower assessments mean less revenues (and maybe higher taxes).

– Gilbert



About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

6 Comments on "GRANOLAPARK: Vote squeezing"

  1. Fred Schultz | January 29, 2013 at 3:27 pm |

    I am in favor of going back to simple paper ballots. There were two good reasons cited by members of the Board of Elections – who by the way, deserve all kinds of praise for doing their jobs flawlessly election after election – for using electronic voting. First, electronic voting makes it easier to deal with the run-offs in case of a tie. Second, it allows for easy post-election analysis of voting patterns.

    But the recent Ward 5 special election, which used paper ballots, resulted in the first use of our run-off protocol and it worked smoothly and did not delay matters.

    I understand the attraction of using electronic devices, but sometimes our enthusiasm for high tech gizmos causes us to needlessly abandon common sense and perfectly good low tech solutions. What can go wrong with a ballot put in a box like we used to do in Takoma Park? No need to worry about software snafus, instruments that break down, power outages, explaining all the steps to puzzled voters (like me) or having to hire (and pay for) a technology consultant to set up the whole arrangement and fix mysterious glitches when they arises.

    In 2011 after the poll closed, we waited a few uncomfortable hours while the machines divulged their data. This doesn’t happen with an eager team of judges ready to count less than 2,000 ballots.

    After we vote on an electronic machine, don’t we feel a little uncertainty about “what just happened” or “where’d my vote go?” I admit I may be showing my elderliness, and some may roll their eyes at these doubts.

    But, I’ve felt a real sense of “having voted” when I’ve drop my folded paper ballot into an ordinary ballot box. Voting is reduced to its essentials. It’s authentic, simple, easy, quick, cheap and fun. Nothing has to be translated into a different language; recounts are indisputable and we can all go home soon after the polls closed knowing who won.

    Fred Schultz

  2. Councilmember Schultz,

    Yes, it is an elderly trait to wonder suspiciously, “where’d my vote go?”

    A young, technically-savvy person could tell you exactly where your vote went – and how it could be hacked, hijacked, defrauded, lost or erased.

    It’s the complacent middle-agers you have to worry about, the ones who don’t know where their votes go, or how the technology works, but trust it to be safe and above-board. You’re the law maker – can we ban these people? Confine them to their homes?

    The main argument against paper voting (as voiced at last week’s meeting) is that IRV makes it complicated, therefore time-consuming. Well, so what?

    If IRV kicks in, and it has only kicked in once, votes could be recounted for “second choice” votes. It would take time, yes, but it is not so complicated that human beings can’t figure it out.

    Why do we need an immediate election result? And why do we wear out our election board to get it — making them work the polls from around 6 am to 8 pm, then count the ballots from 8 pm to 11, midnight, or later?

    If it were a 2-day process, election one day, counting the next, it might be easier on the election judges. And there would not be the pressure to produce an immediate election result. So, we would not need the scanners and computers to speed up the process.

    – Gilbert

  3. Steve Davies | January 30, 2013 at 10:02 am |

    I think there are a few things that could be done to increase turnout.

    First, the city needs to make it as simple as possible for people to 1) register and 2) vote early, by mail or by delivering their absentee ballot to the community center. The second point is important because we still have elections on Tuesdays in Takoma (a workday) and some people don’t want to trek to the community center to vote. Remember, Takoma Park has a lot of residents in the Takoma-Langley area for whom a trip to Maple Avenue and then back home is too much to ask after a full day’s work.

    Here’s what it says about absentee voting on the city’s web page (

    “Any registered Takoma Park voter may apply to vote by absentee ballot. Absentee voting may be completed by mail or in person at the City Clerk’s Office. Instructions and deadlines for absentee voting will be published in advance of an election. To be counted, an absentee ballot must be received by the City Clerk before the closing of the polls on the day of the election.”

    Naturally, you’d expect candidates for office to be pushing registration and voter turnout in their respective wards at every turn, since they want to be elected. If last-minute registration is allowed, Election Day turnout efforts could be decisive: The candidate who ferries more voters to the polls — and slips them cheeseburgers on the way 😉 — would have a decided advantage. How has Obama won the last two elections?

    At every community meeting a councilmember or city staff person attends, there should be a stack of registration forms on a table. Residents could be asked to fill out the forms and hand them in right there. Any questions people have could be answered on the spot.

    This might take a little time and effort in the short term, but less so in the long run as the voting rolls grow.

    An “Are You Registered to Vote?” link could be placed on the city’s home page, with another link to a page with a registration form.

    The mayor and councilmembers could stress regularly at public meetings the importance of voting and provide a link and a phone # (for those without Internet) to get registration information.

    The relationship between the city and the county’s board of elections, which actually handles the data and sends us our registration notices, needs to be examined to ensure that our information is in sync with theirs. As of today, for example, the link on the city’s election info page to the county board of elections site takes you to a “404 — site not found” page. That should be fixed.

    Naturally, turnout would increase if there were more competition. In Ward 2, the # of voters more than doubled from 2009, when Colleen Clay ran unopposed, and 2011, when Tim Male and Lorig Charkoudian were in the race (251 total votes in ’09; 686 in ’11).

    (An aside, but an interesting fact about Ward 2. In 2009, without competition, there were 15 write-ins for the council seat, but in 2011, with two qualified contenders in the race, there was one.)

    Same deal in Ward 3, though the #s aren’t nearly as dramatic as in Ward 2 (in fact, there’s no drama in them at all). In ’09, without any competition, 431 people voted. In 2011, the # went up to 450. But the effect of the contested mayoral race likely boosted the W3 number in ’09.

    I’m not sure if it would cost any more to publicize elections and encourage registration and turnout, but money could easily be re-allocated from other less-deserving projects.

    OK, rant warning!

    For example, am I the only person in Takoma Park who is appalled that we are paying $40,000 for the third time in six years to National Research Center Inc. in Boulder, Colo., for a survey of Takoma Park residents? Here are the proposed questions for the latest survey:

    Doesn’t look like there are many new questions. In fact, surprisingly, the word “environment” only appears once, in a question about the impact of Wash. Adventist’s departure. How about, “Do you think the city is doing enough to reduce air and water pollution and protect the natural environment? Why or why not?” Instead, the survey is (again) a ratings game whose results will allow the city to crow (again) about how we all love it here.

    Apologies for the rant, but check the front page of the city newspaper later this year for the headline “Most residents like living here,” or some such. True, yes, but can’t we find a better way to spend $120,000 that might actually enable us to improve in some areas — instead of just getting a bunch of numbers that tell us what we think we already know?

  4. Your suggestions might increase voter participation, but still, this is speculation because nobody has asked residents why they don’t vote!

    Maybe that would be a good question to put on the survey.

    The survey questions are the same each time on purpose, so they can track those issues over a multi-year period.

    AS we reported on Jan 10 ( the council recently considered adding a question about (environmental) sustainability. Tim Male was a proponent of that. He was also “sensitive to how long this survey is,” as other councilmembers suggested other questions to add regarding: sidewalks, food policy, and parking.

    – Gilbert

  5. Steve Davies | January 30, 2013 at 1:17 pm |

    I bet a lot of people don’t know they live in Takoma Park or don’t know it’s actually a city with its own government

    But yes, we won’t know until we ask

  6. Tom Gagliardo | February 5, 2013 at 7:05 pm |

    When Georgia Governor Lester Maddox said to improve prisons a better class of prisoners needed to be found. To turn out voters we need to find a better class of candidates. Will better candidates result in higher turnout?Bank on it.

Comments are closed.